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What the czechs can read about africa

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African studies in the Czech Republic - past and present
(with special emphasis on African literature)


presentation on Indaba 2004 conference, Harare, August 2004

The Czech Republic - the medium-sized landlocked country of some 10 million inhabitants - has a long and rich history of exploring the world. Its first university has been established already in 1348, Czech missionaries were among the first who built the churches in Peru and Brazil in the 17th century, as well as visited China or the Philippines. After the occupation of the Czech Lands by Austria in 1621, huge numbers of educated people left the country and went abroad, took jobs there and lived all over the world. And some of them passed their knowledge and impressions about far-away lands into diaries and accounts, thus giving the Czech public the first information about other continents.

The first Czech attempts to understand Africa and its cultures

First descriptions of Africa came from the works of travellers Bohuslav Hasištejnský and Martin Kabátník, who visited Cairo at the end of the 15th century- and their travelogues became for many generations of Czechs one of the basic and most widely circulated sources on the situation in the then Egypt. It was in the early 17th century, when the first „scholar” in Arabic studies emerged - Václav Budovec z Budova  - he has mastered Arabic, Persian and Turkish and with this knowledge he even translated parts of the Holy Koran into Czech language.

It was not until 1710s when the first Czech - Franciscan missionary - Římař and half a century later his colleague Prutký visited subsaharan Africa - Abyssinia - and left one of the first detailed accounts of the situation in that country. The 18th century saw also the first Czech missionaries (Moravian Brethren) to settle in the Gold Coast and the Cape, Jiří Šmit (often known under his Germanized name as Georg Schmidt) was even the very first missionary to settle there permanently. Unfortunately, no first-hand accounts of their works exist.
The first real Czech Africanist in a more modern sense of this word, is thus traveller, collector and explorer Emil Holub, who has organized three expeditions into the interior of Southern and Central Africa. Via Shoshong and Pandamatenga in today´s Botswana he got up to Zambezi, where he made the first detailed plan of the Victoria Falls and its surroundings in 1876 and spent some time at the court of the Lozi king Sepopa, he also tried to get upstream Zambezi, but he was stopped some 60 kilometers North of a present-day Zambian town of Sesheke. His second expedition took him into the then unknown lands around Kafue river in today´s central Zambia. Holub´s two travelogues, numerous articles, but especially 200+ pages long detailed account of customs and material culture of Lozi, Mbunda, Nkoya and Ila peoples of Zambia written neither in Czech or English, but in German is still a crucial work about these parts of Africa.
More advanced were Arabic studies, which became the part of Prague´s Charles University curriculum in the second half of the 19th century, the first direct translations from Arabic into Czech emerged in 1870s and 1880s.
It was only after the independent Czechoslovakia has been established in 1918, when the crucial scientific body for study of Asia and Africa - Oriental Institute - came to life. Although studies of Africa south of the Sahara were still almost non-existent, there, a few scientific works devoted to Ethiopia have been published- -. In mid-war period the initiative in African studies was thus primarily on the part of Egyptologists, Arabists and Ethnographers and - logically - art collectors.

Studying and translating modern Arabic and African literatures

It was not until the mid-20th century when the modern literature from Africa south of the Sahara and Maghreb has been studied more thoroughly. It was after the World War II, when the first stories and novels by mainly Egyptian writers have been translated from Arabic into Czech. Up to today many  Egyptian writers has been presented to Czech reading public, including novels by the most prominent writers as Mahfouz, Husayn, al-Hakim, ash-Sharkawi and Chedid.
Also francophone Algerian and Moroccan literatures has been widely translated and especially Dib and Mammeri were popular in the 1960s and the 1970s, followed by younger generation writers such as Rachid Boudjedra. Arabist Pantůček´s knowledge of Maghreb literatures gave birth to three books - Modern Algerian Literature published in 1969 in French, Tunisian Literature published the same year in Russian and comprehensive Literatures of North Africa published in 1978 in Czech, and this knowledge later on allowed him also to edit three retrospective anthologies of Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan both French and Arabic short stories in the mid-1990s.
But what about the subsaharan Africa?  It was In the 1920s and 1930s when the first books from Africa south of the Sahara has been published in Czech. The very first seems to be one of the settlers´ novels of a.famous Rhodesian writer Gertrude Page!... but it was not until 1947 and 1948 when the first books by black Africans has been published in the Czech language - they were poetry collection by Senghor and a novel Mine Boy by Abrahams.
Following the Year of Africa and emergence of newly indpendent nations, the interest in the Black Continent among the Czechs reached its first height, the African studies as a separate branch of learning have been started at Charles´ University in 1961, and separate African dept. of the already mentioned Oriental Insitute has been established five years later. It was a necessity as former Czechoslovakia was one of the active supporters of newly emerged independent African countries and it had the longest and widest tradition of contacts with Subsaharan Africa from all the Soviet-bloc countries then. Although Soviet Union and Eastern Germany became more visible supporters of new Africa since the 1970s, it was throughout the whole second half of the 20th century when thousands of Africans studied at Czechoslovak universities and development cooperation with many African nations became integral part of Czechoslovak relations with Africa... and Angola, Zambia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana and Guinea being the biggest beneficiaries of such a cooperation.
Whatever the ideological motifs used to be, such activities did in fact provide a huge background for the African studies in Czechoslovakia. Two volume concise History of Africa edited by Hrbek has been published in 1966 (and Hrbek´s editorial work even influenced a structure of a UNESCO General History of Africa, of which he was a member of a scientific committee from its creation, and the editor of Volume III devoted to Africa between the 7th and 11th cent.). It has been followed by a stream of monographs on various aspects of African history, from Monomotapa empire up to social imbalances of a post-colonial African countries. There was also a group of scholars in African linguistics and their results have been a.o.  textbooks and dictionaries of Swahili, Amharic and Hausa.
Last but not least, the first works on modern African literatures in Czech emerged. Czech scholars were among the first ones worldwide who devoted their attention to critical study of African fiction already in the mid-1960s, the most important of their early works being Literatures of Black Africa published in 1970 in Czech, but soon after revised and translated into English, Russian and Polish. With all its shortcomings, it was the very first attempt in the world to write a book covering the whole body of the African literatures, both oral and modern, and in European and African languages, covering as much countries as possible. Also the monographs Study of Cameroonian novels published in Prague in 1971 in French and Modern Nigerian Novels published in 1969 in English has beem written..
As a part of the effort of the same group of Czech Africanists, the first translations of the most famous African works has been published -  Ekwensi´s People of the City, Achebe´s No Longer at Ease, Mphalele´s Down the Second Avenue reached the Czech public already in the beginning of the 1960s, followed by such bestsellers as Tutuola´s The Palm-wine Drinkard and Van Der Post´s The Lost World of Kalahari shortly afterwards.  Writers of Guinea and Cameroon were the first ones to represent the francophone African fiction Laye´s Black Child, Oyono´s Old Negro and the Medal, Beti´s Poor Christ of Bomba and  Niane´s Sundiata where available in Czech in mass editions before the end of the 1960s..
After a decade when the interest in African literature decreased, the 1980s saw Czech readers found new names from Africa. Translated had been most famous novels and short story collections of Ousmane, Mwangi, Hampaté Ba, Gordimer, Vieira and Brink (with at least four novels in Czech!), followed by dozens of short stories being also translated and published in magazines as Nový orient (New Orient) and Světová literatura (World Literature), majority of them translated by the best Czech translators,

Africa and the Czech readers at the turn of the century

The collapse of a Soviet-bloc in 1989 and subsequent opening of Czechoslovakia (and after its split, the Czech Republic) to the world, had an unfortunate impact on the whole range of Asian and African studies. On one side, the group of scholars, who were persecuted by the communist regime, can restart their carreers, but it was not easy for them to recreate their contacts with a scientific life. Those who has fled the country and worked abroad  started officially their cooperation with their colleagues in the Czech Republic. But in the same moment, the younger generation of Africanists saw the numerous opportunities and the African studies had to overcome a „personel” crisis in the 1990s.
Czech diplomatic service was then (and still is) full of Africanists of older and middle generation. Africanists were in charge of our embassies in Nigeria, the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Cyprus and Kenya and at least five more Africanists joined the diplomatic service in junior positions. Such a sígnificant brain drain had a very negative impact on African studies in the mid-1990s...
Although the publishing activities were on constant rise in the Czech Republic in the early 1990s, they mainly fed the readers with all that works, which were forbidden and/or forcibly forgotten in the past 40 years, thus the interest in works on Africa was pushed behind and African studies and translations from African languages were virtually non-existent, although the number of book titles published in the Czech Republic reached the 10 thousand mark a year already in the 1990s. .
The situation for Africa-related publishing started changing in the mid-1990s, when the interest in „exotica” based on widening travel experiences of young Czechs, brought back interests in Asia (firstly India, China and Japan), followed by an interest in Arabic countries and last - but not least - Africa. Translations of Okri, Gordimer, Brink and also collections of African short stories and fairy tales and a few new books showing Africa less grim than usually opened the door for more African fiction to enter the Czech market.
Africanists turned diplomats had also an impact on a change -  Mikeš published the photographic book about Ethiopia and translated into Czech a selection of Amharic fables and tales, the third book of his - translation of a fables of a tiny Southern Ethiopian tribe of Tsamay - is forthcoming. Two books about West Africa and an anthology of African short stories is on credit of former ambassador to Ghana Klíma and a new linguistics works on Amharic by former Ambassador to Ethiopia Poláček are also forthcoming.
Great impulse for Czech African studies has been the Prague international book fair - BookWorld - in April last year, which had as its main topic Africa.
For a surprise of many, „Africa” won over previous main themes, such as Switzerland and/or Belgium, and draw crowds of prospective readers to the exhibitions. It was a great promotion of African literature (and African continent as well) which helped new writers to present themselves to Czech public, but also allowed Czech publishers to overcome their fears, that there will be no market for such books. Also the presence of Couto, Kourouma, Dangarembga, Osundare, Makhélé, Asare and other writers and publishers helped promoting Africa and its literatures.
The most complex Africa-related project has been launched by the biggest Czech publisher BB Art - a Czech edition of 12 selected of „100 Best African books“ as announced in Cape Town in two years ago, of which  now six books is already available in new Czech editions.. Also two anthologies devoted to South African and Zimbabwean short fiction were prepared and new novels by Okri, Kourouma and Gordimer poetry by Osundare and dramas by Makhélé were published by leading Czech publishers. Interesting project has been produced by Labyrint publisher - 400+ pages African literature reader - which contained two dozens stories from all parts of Africa, including translations from not only European  languages, but also from Wolof, Hausa, Amharic, Swahili and Yoruba, Last, but not least, the very first book of translations from Malgache into Czech has seen its light..
The book fair showed that the interest in Africa among the Czech public is on rise, and thus it was also the important push for the African studies as a whole. Publishing house Lidové noviny has commissioned the book on history of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, and Nigeria and Cameroon. The very first account of African philosophy has been published and a book comparing the lifes of political prisoners in the then socialist Czechoslovakia and apartheid South Africa has been published both in the Czech Republic and RSA. The most interesting book for a wide public was a full-colour 150+ pages  original Czech book on African costumes and haircuts Dress of Africa to be available in French soon.
After the problems of the 1990s, the future of Czech African studies seems to be very good, a young promising personalities emerge, among them being a linguist and a translator Alena Rettová, who is recently working on bilingual Czech-English selection of Ndebele writing to be published at the end of the year. It will cover all aspects of written and oral literature from praise songs, up to modern stories, from poetry to historical writing. Novels by Yvonne Vera Without a Name and Tsitsi Dangarembga Nervous Conditions are now being translated and should be available to Czech readers hopefuly next year.
The Czech Republic thus „returns“ to Africa, which was a bit out of her sight in the mid-1990s. It is seen also on a support of the Czech govermnent which in March 2004 announced the significant increase of the budget for the development cooperation and selected six non-European countries to be the major beneficiaries of such a cooperation, of these two are African countries, namely Angola and Zambia. This will be one more important support to Czech African studies.

c Jaroslav Olša, jr., 2004


complete version of the text will be published by Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 2005.

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